"All right, Spike," Applejack carefully began. "Let's hear it. Why are y'askin' us t' all get t'gether behind Twi's tail?"
The little dragon nervously looked around. He'd been incredibly careful about picking out the meeting point for the Bearers (minus a hopefully-unaware Magic) and had finally gone with the one place in Ponyville where his sister would not venture without a direct threat to life, limb, and the existence of the realm involved: the Cutie Mark Crusaders clubhouse -- which, given that the three fillies weren't currently occupying it, theoretically bought them at least enough time to use the place and clear the front door after. Holding the meeting at night was an additional boost to their possible safety. Having had to secure permission for the place's use through promising that the older ponies (and dragon -- they hadn't left him that loophole) wouldn't pry into, move, shift, or otherwise do anything beyond standing in the clubhouse and talking had been explained to everypony before they'd entered and the passed-along vow was openly rankling Applejack, who visibly wanted to start taking things apart in a search for any future attempt to gain cutie marks as Special Explosive Experts, yay. This stood in direct trembling opposition to Fluttershy, who was just waiting for said explosions to begin.
So far, there had been no signs of slightly-built purple unicorns. Nor had there been any explosions, although Pinkie had reported three suspicious curls of oddly blue smoke.
"All right," he told them. "I think we're safe..."
Rainbow Dash snorted. (She'd taken a position near an opened window, all the better to evacuate with.) "For now. Come on, Spike -- I know this isn't about her birthday, we don't have a mission, she hasn't taken anything we've said as inspiration for turning the town upside-down for a few days... can we just get to the point? Maybe Fluttershy works this late all the time for her nocturnals, but I've got some partying to get to."
Rarity sighed. "I realize this must be important for you to be acting in this manner, Spike -- but the longer you hold off giving us a reason for the summons, the more I am going to worry about the cause. Your scroll was surprisingly -- free of details."
"Sometimes she reads over my shoulder," Spike sighed. "I couldn't even risk your names..." (The clubhouse had been referred to as Chaos Central. They'd all worked it out immediately.) One last look around. Still no lavender ears twitching at a window. "Okay. I don't know if you're all aware of this, but there's a couple of requirements and benefits attached to Twilight's research grant. One of the requirements is that wherever she's researching, she has to have a job. In Ponyville, she's the librarian. For Canterlot -- same thing, only she didn't have the entire library. She worked in one of the semi-public parts of the Canterlot Archives. The Ancient History department with a little bit of time in Rare Documents. She kind of -- got shoved up there. The other Archivists got sick of her trying to reorganize the place every week."
"So now she just redoes a whole library every day!" Pinkie declared. "I guess for Twilight, that's one of the benefits..."
Spike winced. "You aren't moving the books... Anyway, one of the actual benefits is that she gets a residence wherever she's working, paid for as part of the grant. So she was given a place in Canterlot. And that's the problem -- she still has it. And they need it for their new Ancient History librarian. They've needed it for moons, guys. But Twilight didn't want to give the place up, and she never moved everything out of it. The deadline for taking her stuff out is tomorrow night. Sunset. I just got the Final Eviction scroll this morning. And they're threatening that anything left in there after the Moon gets raised, they're going to keep. That's not legal and they're bluffing to make her get in there, but the other real option is that they just pile all the stuff at the base of the building and whoever trots by first is going to grab first pick..."
Rarity blinked -- then frowned. "That is a problem. But Spike -- I'm rather surprised she has it. Since when is Twilight one to postpone doing something until she's right up against the deadline?"
And now the dragon just looked horribly uncomfortable: tail twitching, front claws flexing in and out, nictitating membranes flickering at the edges of his eyes. "It's -- just different." Words which seemed to have been wrenched from his tongue. "I -- can't talk about it, guys. Please?"
They waited. Nothing more emerged.
Finally, Pinkie gently rubbed her chin against the slightly-tilted shoulder scales, and they went back down.
"Moving, huh?" Rainbow asked. "Still not seeing the problem here, Spike. Tomorrow's a holiday -- the library's closed. Twilight can go to Canterlot on the earliest train out and get there just as the Sun shows up. And then with her magic, she could practically lift the entire apartment and carry it back to sort out here. Why do you need us?"
"Because -- if it's just her -- she'll pick up the entire apartment," Spike sighed. "One piece at a time, Rainbow. She'll inspect that piece. Catalog it. Write down where it was in the original apartment. Create a point-by-point reference map for where it should be put in the library. Wrap every inch. Maybe she'll wonder about how that piece was originally developed and rush off to the Archives to research its evolution for an hour. She might check to see if it's appreciated in value. And she'll repeat that with everything -- until it's sunset and she's finished one-tenth of a shelf. Or -- she might panic, and then..." He spread his arms, looking helpless. "Twilight panics in a lot of different ways, and practically none of them ever work out. I grew up with her, guys. I know how she gets when she's in trouble -- better than anypony. I'm asking you to help her move out of that apartment because if it's just her, something will go wrong. And if it's just me helping... it's not always enough to stop things or get them moving in the right direction. I'm her little brother, and that means she doesn't always think she has to listen to me even when I know best..."
Applejack groaned. "Been there, Spike. Celestia's tail, do Ah know that feelin'." (Pinkie sadly nodded.) "So y'figure she will listen t' us?"
"I'm hoping," Spike admitted. "I know with the holiday, you're all at least mostly off -- except for you, Fluttershy, but -- I can spend some of my allowance to get ponies in for you, and if I can't, I'll stay behind and --" he swallowed hard "-- deal with -- them. And -- Angel. And -- mostly 'and Angel', but... the only way this is going to get done without her losing anything is if she gets help. She is going to be on the first train tomorrow, and -- if you're willing to go -- I have enough saved up to get you all tickets. It's the early train -- they're a little cheaper."
Fluttershy blinked. "...Spike..." she hesitantly began, "...that's going to just about take out all your bits... between me and the tickets... I know you don't have that much..."
"It's important," the little dragon softly insisted. "Guys -- please?"
Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes. "How early?" He told her. "Oh, for -- that's the express, right?" It was. "Of all the... okay, fine. I can get coverage for the morning shift, but it's gonna cost me and that means it's gonna cost you. I want a favor, Spike, and you'll know when..."
"I can go," Pinkie offered. "This is something I can really do! I've never had to pack an apartment before, but I've boxed enough delicates with pastries and cakes! I can keep everything intact!"
Applejack pondered. "Was gonna go over the books with Big Mac --" she paused "-- actually, that's a really good reason t' get outta town. Let Mister Math Whiz have his anythin'-but-fun. Ah'm in, Spike."
Fluttershy was a little more worried. "...are you sure you can cover for me? After that last time..."
"I know a lot more about what not to do now," Spike told her. A tensing right claw suggested he was also thinking about some things he should have done. And who they should have been done to. "If I can't get anypony -- I can handle it, Fluttershy."
"...I -- guess if you're confident -- okay, Spike, I'll go... but please try to get some help no matter what... it's a lot to do..."
Rarity sighed. "Normally I might complain somewhat about the loss of sales on a holiday, but given that Photo Finish has been openly badmouthing my work for the last moon ever since I 'stole her discovery', I'm not sure what I could do which would hurt numbers hovering so close to zero. I will welcome the chance to help Twilight, Spike -- along with just getting out of town for a day. Perhaps I will find some fresh inspiration in Canterlot which not even a certain photographer can falsely claim lacks 'ze magics!'."
Spike managed a smile. "Okay. Then let's get out of here. You guys get some sleep, and I'll see if I can get anypony to cover for Fluttershy or just help me. I'll try to go along if I can, though -- I just can't promise." They understood: lining up replacements for the shy pegasus before a mission could be worse than the assignment itself, and they had all openly longed for somepony in town who could serve as Work For Hire -- not to mention the bits for hiring with. "Two more things, though?" A group nod. "One -- sneak onto the train. Don't let her see you get on. Go up to her after you're already moving and it's too late to turn back. And..."
The pause took long enough for two more curls of blue smoke to manifest from that particular closed drawer, and Fluttershy backed up until her tail was just about out the door.
Spike tilted his head up slightly on the left, pressed a claw to his right temple.
"...when it's over -- please don't hate me too much..."
They looked at each other. They swore they wouldn't.
In the end, it was just the opposite.
"I'm going to get him for this."
A very disgruntled Twilight was leading the way through Canterlot towards her old residence. Very slowly. The spires housing part of the semi-public portions of the Archives (some was above ground, most was under it -- there was just too much to store and given the state of pony architecture when Canterlot had begun to truly develop as a city, it had simply been easier to build down) were getting closer. Even for the busy city, it was too early in the morning to get much hoof traffic, and the Bearers constituted the majority of what was currently on the road -- or for Rainbow, over it. The Archives were also located in what was generally considered to be Canterlot's most distant suburbs: there were a few homes around, and those were surrounded by wide open spaces with well-tended grass and carefully-sculptured trees: such properties were found on both sides of the wide road, and there was very little in the way of other buildings. Despite the area having a great view of the castle, it wasn't considered to be particularly prime real estate. It wasn't being near a library of sorts: it was being near a library which housed too many documents, ancient notes, scrolls, and occasional cocktail napkins concerning the deepest of spell research. There was nothing wrong with reading such works -- usually. It was the students who decided to try out newfound and half-understood facts before leaving which created most of the open space.
"He's jus' tryin' t' help, Twi," Applejack offered. "He wants you t' get yer stuff out without any problems. Be a shame if y'lost anythin' t' the deadline, right?"
"I could have handled this," the barely-trotting unicorn insisted. "I would have been fine. I moved into the school dorms without help -- okay, my parents hired the cart, but that was it. I got everything packed on one end and unloaded on the other. I got out of the dorms with Spike just handling a couple of small things and hired my own cart just because floating everything down the street the whole way, I might have had something bump into somepony -- or them blunder into it -- and then I never would have heard the end of it. Everything would have been okay with me all by myself. None of you had to give up your time to help me." Frustrated, "And he shouldn't have asked you."
Normally Spike could have picked up his own defense at this point, but he was at Fluttershy's cottage and, given the hour, was probably right in the middle of having Angel kick him in the face for the fifth time. (As it turned out, the rabbit had overslept slightly and was thus only up to the third.) The yellow pegasus took over in his stead. "...he cares about you, Twilight... you've only got a day..."
"Fine." That in a grumpy tone which gave every letter its own individual lie. "He already hijacked you: there's nothing I can do about that. I do appreciate the help, girls -- I just don't think it's necessary. But --" brightening slightly, with the boost in emotion almost coming through in her coat "-- maybe with your help, we can get it done in an hour or so and then spend the rest of the day just hanging around Canterlot. I know the Gala's getting close, but -- we'll be at the party the whole night, and I've never had the chance to take you around. We sure won't get it then..."
"That sounds lovely, dear," Rarity smiled. "I know you're not quite a native, but I'm sure you've had more than enough time in the city to know the best sights and sites alike."
"...I know this really nice doughnut shop... okay, up the stairs..."
There were stairs. There was also a tree sculptured into the shape of a butterfly at their base, which Fluttershy spent a minute admiring. Then there was a landing, and more stairs, then another landing, and still more stairs. Then the stairs stopped -- and turned into a ramp, one which wound about the outside of the tower several times on its way to the minaret, moving up and up and up to the point where even Fluttershy finally surrendered and took to the air.
"Twi," Applejack tried not to gasp, "y'lived here before y'could teleport? And y'climbed this every day?"
"Yes," the unicorn admitted, slightly confused. "Usually at least a few times every day between sunrise and sunset. Why?"
"'cause now that fifth place makes a lot more sense."
Rarity was examining the ramp itself. "A spell to increase friction, correct? To keep ponies from simply skidding down?"
Twilight nodded. "It's a little too long and steep for anything else. There should have been railings, but -- well, they kept getting blown off."
"High winds? With the Canterlot weather control team?"
"No -- blown off," Twilight casually corrected. "Third-years... don't ask. I thought they would have replaced them by now, but it's almost a tradition to damage some part of the Archives once you get into the better portions... maybe they were restored after I left and just got detonated all over again..."
"Friction increase?" asked a curious Pinkie, merrily pronking up the curves. "Aw... I was gonna try and slide down the whole thing! -- wait." Suddenly serious. "That'll make it really hard to slide anything, Twilight! We'll get more resistance! If there's any really really awkward furniture..."
"I'll handle it," Twilight said. "Anything really heavy, I'll take care of: promise. They're going to park the cart at the base of the steps -- I'll just aim carefully and lower things slowly. I guess if everypony's helping with the lighter things -- box packing? Those should have been delivered yesterday..."
They found the folded boxes on the porch.
It was a magnificent porch. It wasn't all that large (and also lacked the railing), but had a perfect view of the castle. There was also a beautifully configured piece of hanging greenery protruding from one edge. A bench for sitting close by and appreciating it all. Double blue doors which Twilight's field coated and opened as the group approached. And once inside --
"-- oh, Twilight," Rarity breathed. "You had this?"
From the outside, the outer walls were solid. From the inside, most of them were transparent, and the early rays of Sun gifted highlights to everything they touched. The view of the castle became all the more magnificent for the slightly altered angle. Gallop up another flight of stairs to reach the Ancient History section of the Archives, but go forward and --
-- there was a giant cushion covering what by itself still would have been the most comfortable couch Rarity had ever seen. A beautiful blue bed off to one side. Dressers a little beyond that, a large wardrobe -- and then the rest of the apartment was laid out around the perimeter of the lower level. Exposed kitchen there. Enclosed bathroom a little further along, then a study area containing what must have been Twilight's personal library: six tall sets of shelves, all completely filled to the brim with books carefully placed on top of the shorter ones just to get a little more verbiage in the assigned space. A very small lab area -- actually, barely anything at all. A huge piano, which they all looked away from because any time you put together 'piano' and 'moving', the next step typically prayed for is 'somepony else's problem' -- plus Twilight had already promised to take care of the heaviest things herself. And in the central space, an indoor garden, just a little one, a few small bushes and flowers to rest among, plush grass, miniature trees sculpted into shapes Rarity recognized from her fourth-year textbook as classic spell notation symbols, the delicate scent of blossoms and heady feel from the freshest of oxygen...
"Had," Twilight said, and the word was flavorless.
There was also a lot of dust. The heaviest coatings were on the sections which normally would have been used for guests. Some of the benches were practically virgin. Two of the guest couches gave off the distinct aura of never having contacted a pony body in their lives.
Applejack was staring at the little garden. "Twi -- how is that here? Ah know y'don't have magic for that. No unicorn does, an' it's inside..."
"One of the royal gardeners came by and tended it every few days," Twilight explained. "Same for the hanging gardens outside. And naturally, they're all earth ponies. They have tokens which get them past the security spell -- and you only got in because you're with me. Virtually any other pony would just see the steps going up to that part of the Archives: illusion would cover the apartment and security measures keep anypony from getting into it who isn't supposed to be there. But the gardeners don't clean up the rest. They have trouble even seeing anything which isn't the gardens. Part of the security spell, Applejack. Nothing I did -- just built-in measures for whoever's using the apartment."
Rainbow Dash was upstairs in the central library. "Are we packing any of this?" There was no anxiety in the voice. There also wasn't any desperation, or at least not anything the pegasus would admit to being such.
"No," Twilight called up. "I sorted out my books the day I came to Ponyville, Rainbow -- I didn't want anything belonging to the Archives stuck behind the security spells: I never would have heard the end of it. Whatever's upstairs belongs to the library. In fact, most of the stuff in the apartment is staying, at least for the majority of the furniture -- it belongs here and goes to -- the next tenant. And like I said, I'll get the hard stuff."
"Good," Rainbow yelled down, the relief a little too audible in her tone, perhaps because it no longer had to think about bringing a complete Archives section along in any way. "Because I figured there was a good chance you lived in this part and let everypony else read downstairs!"
Twilight didn't blush, and that surprised Fluttershy, who was more in time with what caused embarrassment among her friends than any of the others -- even if she couldn't always prevent it from happening. "...it's so pretty, Twilight... it's so much nicer than --" and stopped herself, suddenly aware of how the next words could come across.
The librarian sighed. "Than my rooms in the Ponyville library," she finished. An overhead loft for sleeping. A few private shelves -- too few. One undergrown breakfast nook which Spike just barely managed to keep operational as a full kitchen. A bathroom separate from the one used by patrons, with just enough space to give her a bath for one -- and that was a rather ugly old-fashioned wooden tub which wasn't even fully connected to the plumbing and had to be hauled out of the room in order to deal with the aftermath of inadvertent skunk attacks. "I know."
Five different groups of thoughts began to head in the same direction.
The apartment was beautiful.
The apartment was far nicer than her current laughably-equivalent.
The apartment was, in many ways, perfect for Twilight.
And she had held onto it for all the moons since she had moved to Ponyville.
"Let's get started," Twilight quietly said. "I guess... we might as well go with strengths. Pinkie, would you mind starting on the kitchen? There's no food left... just a few pots and pans Spike never got to bring: I know he's been missing them." The apprentice baker bounced in that general direction. "Rarity -- could you please pack my clothes?" The designer nodded and trotted towards the dressers. "Applejack, I'm allowed to bring one of the bonsais -- pick one out for me? I'm not really good with that... Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash --" and she was out of friend-specific tasks "-- box assembly, if you don't mind? And then you can help me pack books... I'll take care of the lab myself: there isn't much. I wasn't allowed much -- the students make enough things explode on their own, so I had to keep it to the lowest-level things. This shouldn't take long..."
They moved into action. Some of them were staring at the castle through the transparent walls. Others took a few seconds for inhaling the delicate scents from the garden.
But whenever they were sure there was no chance of being caught, they looked at Twilight. Surveyed the beautiful apartment again. And five sets of thoughts all began to lengthen into shadow.
"I'm finished!" Pinkie announced twelve minutes in.
Twilight blinked. "Already?"
"You've got three plates, Twilight! Wrapping them wasn't exactly going to take all day! And your cooking stuff is -- um... well, I can see you're alive, but I'm not sure how..."
That got Pinkie a tiny, wry smile. "Spike's always done nearly all the cooking," Twilight admitted. "Ever since we escaped the school cafeteria once and for all. I can work with complex formulas, but salad... Okay, make boxes."
"Please," Rainbow Dash groaned. "This is so boring..."
"...it's not so bad," Fluttershy gently protested.
"Yes, it is! Fold the box! Lift the edges! Spread the tape! Holding tape rolls in my mouth, by the way? Tastes horrible! And there is nothing exciting about a box!"
"You're looking at it the wrong way, silly!" Pinkie laughed. "It's not about making the box -- it's about what you get when you have it!"
"Oh, yeah?" Rainbow challenged. "I have a box. What have you got?"
Pinkie jumped inside the largest one, clenched the lid panel with her teeth, and pulled it down after her.
Silence reigned. After a full minute, it headed for the castle to demand Celestia's throne.
"Pinkie?" Rainbow carefully tried out, and edged a wing under the lid. "What are you doing in --"
"-- none shall invade Fort Rockford!" The wing was pushed out, with the final exiting feather tweaked for good measure. "Approach at your own peril!"
The weather coordinator yelped in shock and flew backwards three body lengths -- before the look of Challenge Accepted took over her face. "Oh, is that how it's gonna be? Only one of us had ancestors in the siege business, Commander Rockhead!"
"Do your worst, General Hurricane Brain!"
"Hurricane Brain? Oh, I'm gonna --"
Rainbow swooped in. The box just barely hopped out of the way. It got sillier from there.
Twilight sighed and turned her attention back to the books. "I forgot I had this edition," she openly mused. "This is a really old printing, Fluttershy. I should probably go look it up --"
Twilight blinked. "Sorry?"
"...Spike said not to let you look anything up."
"Spike said?" That was worth two blinks and the tiniest of tail lashes.
"And you're going to listen? To him? It's just one book! One reference check! I can gallop down to that part of the Archives and be back in under an hour! We've got all day!"
"...you're not going." This with a very soft firmness to it, just a coating of moss -- but moss over rock did not change the nature of the rock. "...first you check one. Then you come back and see another one you want to look up. And then it's sunset. So... no, Twilight. Pack it and look it up in Ponyville."
"But..." The librarian looked horribly confused. Part of it was because Spike had overridden her from afar, a little more was from the forever-strangeness of Fluttershy holding ground, and the majority came because she wasn't being allowed to consult a reference while standing in part of a library. Still, she had a rally left in her. "...I can go through all of them right now, Fluttershy! And then if I find any more I have to double-check information on, I'll go look them all up at once! How's that? Efficient, right?"
The yellow pegasus leaned in, gently took the book in her teeth, and placed it in a box.
"...that's efficient," she told Twilight. "Please... grab a few more?"
The first bits of a pinkish field began to manifest within the box. A book which had been packed could always be unpacked. Besides, no matter how gentle the always-careful pegasus was, there might be teeth marks to inspect.
Fluttershy closed the lid. The field, blocked, winked out.
The stare transmuted, changed the first two letters into a g and l without any magic involved whatsoever -- but that was still a lost cause. There was a price to pay for getting into a formal staring contest with Fluttershy, and Twilight gave up before the match was officially declared on and brought forth the capital letter.
"I have to sort them," Twilight tried. "I don't have room on my own shelves for everything, Fluttershy -- most of these are going to become part of the library's collection. At the very least, I've got to mark them with the right coding so I'll know where they're going."
"...and why can't you do that when you've got them in the library and can see the sections in front of you?"
"I need a reference map! At the absolute minimum!"
Twilight looked around the room. It held no answer.
She glanced at the upper shelves. No help there either.
Fluttershy's eyes held nothing but the twin promises of work and Stare.
"Fine," Twilight muttered. "Pack and go..."
Behind them, the fort fought off an aerial bombardment with the assistance of earth pony reinforcements from the nation of Appleachia.
The projected hour had passed -- and 'passed' was a euphemism. Twilight had murdered it. Blocked from the cataloging and Rare Edition Search of her books, she had turned to processing the scant lab equipment. Which had to be calibrated for safety. And recalibrated. Checked to make sure none of the calibration had slipped during the wrapping.
This had been followed by dusting. The apartment had to be clean for the next resident, yes. That was arguably part of the moving process, not to mention courtesy, and certain sections had certainly needed it. Inspection of the targeted areas on a grain-by-grain basis had seemed -- excessive. And it had happened anyway. They were four hours in and Twilight was still cleaning benches to standards which would have been overreaching for the most delicate of spell research facilities.
Of course, the ultimate dust test was the white hoof one.
"Has anypony seen Rarity?"
"Sorry, Twi. Not for a while now," Applejack told her -- then stopped for a moment as she taped another box shut. She'd said she didn't mind the taste. She was also starting to look slightly woozy. "Last Ah heard from her, she opened yer wardrobe -- then there was kind of a small -- well, Ah'm not sure how t' describe it. Kinda like somepony was gonna scream an' held the thing by the tail before it got outta her mouth. An' then she picked up a bunch of your clothes in her field an' raced 'em out t' the porch with some boxes trailin' behind her."
"I guess she decided to pack outside and stay out of the way," Twilight decided. "It's efficient, really..."
The left-side outer door opened. The smell of smoke came in first, waved hello to everypony, and checked out what was left of the kitchen.
Rarity followed it.
"Twilight," the designer began, her face etched in woe, misery, and a need for at least four hours of spa treatments, "I am so sorry..."
The librarian raced over. "Rarity? What happened? Are you okay?" Smoke? Where had smoke come from? "There was no lightning in the forecast today! Were there pegasus kids playing around outside? We can report them to the police or Guards, whoever we can find first --"
"-- no, nothing like that," Rarity sighed, sounding as if she would prefer to be weeping. "I'm quite all right, but... All my fault, Twilight... all mine..."
Still concerned, "What happened?"
"Well... I took your clothing outside. I thought I would fold and pack it in the fresh air and sunlight. Give it a little bit of nature's zest before sending it on its way. A little something to fight the mustiness of a box."
A muffled "Do not insult my native land!" came from some distance away. They both ignored it.
"All right," Twilight said. "I know things smell better off a drying line than they do coming out of a device... what happened?"
"I became -- creative, Twilight. Something a fifth-year dropout should not do. Move them all at once, that was certainly easy enough. Fold them simultaneously? Nothing simpler, even for large quantities. But it was that quality of fresh air and Sun-infused cloth, Twilight... Sun... I... oh dear, you are going to think I'm a horrible mare, you'll hate me..."
"I don't hate you, Rarity, and I won't... please, just tell me."
"I thought -- if hours under Sun -- hours we do not strictly have -- gave cloth such a wonderful scent -- then what would a direct infusion do? And so for the first time since I left school, I became -- creative. I tried to bring sunlight and fabric together and..."
There was a long silence, one which decided that despite the creating topic, it was naturally suited for the Lunar Throne and so went to seize it.
"...well, at least only half your things caught fire..."
Twilight closed her eyes.
"I'll replace them all, Twilight, I swear... I will labor day and night until you have a new piece for each which you lost... It is the least I can do for having been such a silly fool of a mare..."
The librarian sighed, kept her eyes shut. "Direct infusion of Sun into cloth?"
"Yes," Rarity reluctantly admitted. "I know how stupid I was, Twilight, and I am so very sorry."
"You might as well have tried to infuse dragon flame into rock!"
"I know. I can never truly apologize, can I? Twilight, if there is anything else I can do --"
"-- I need a notebook." The purple eyes snapped open.
"A notebook. Putting energy inside a solid mass... you know, most solids are barely that, most of what we think of as being solid is just a lot of empty space that we're not allowed to pass through, not unless we can phase shift and there's so few unicorns who can manage that -- a notebook? I know I must have left at least one! I've got to find it before I lose the idea! Spike can't take this down for me -- maybe one of the students left some papers upstairs -- I'll be right back! I swear! I just need to write this down and maybe two, three, eight pages of conjecture and then we can get right back to packing --!"
And she was gone, tail vibrating with excitement as it whipped out of sight over the top stair.
Rarity exhaled. Rainbow Dash let the siege take a time-out and flew over.
"Half her clothing caught fire?"
"The half which truly needed to."
It was three hours before sunset. Things had gotten done, and not enough of them. Nearly all of those were in spite of Twilight, who had found magical theory as Something Else To Do and therefore kept on doing it. Whole new fields of research had been created during the process, and the only things which had stopped her was running out of available paper, her own refusal to write in books unless doing so was well beyond normally necessary, and her friends physically blocking her from heading out to the stationery supply store. She had no teleport site for it, and managed to use twelve minutes grumbling about that. There was still a chance to finish in time, but they needed her to focus -- and no amount of encouragement or redirection seemed to be doing much.
And then there was the piano.
The piano which, as it turned out, did not come with the apartment.
"What is it, Pinkie?"
"You never told me you could play the piano! We could have done concerts together! I could have gotten all my instruments and you could have brought your piano, and then we could have gone to the town square on Market Day and played in front of Lyra until she chased us down screaming about what we were doing to the concept of music! I've never run from her with a partner before! It's got to be more fun when she can't get both of us!"
"I can't play."
"Even better! -- huh?"
"I can't play." A plain statement. "My mother wanted me to learn when I was a filly and -- we always had the piano, it's been part of the House for centuries. But I started in on magic, and she let it go -- until I graduated. Then when I moved here, I came in and she'd -- beaten me to it. The piano was already in here, along with a beginner's songbook and another with remedial lessons. She keeps thinking I'll get to it eventually. It's my piano. I'm surprised she didn't leave it on my porch at the library, except it might have fallen through..."
They all looked at the instrument. It was -- large. Very large. Even for unicorns, the oldest pony pianos were meant to be played by hoof -- side hooves. For the most classic styles, the musician lies down on their side along on the long bench, orientation varying depending on whether their left side is dominant or their right. The higher hooves aim for the keys, which are distinctly wide -- they have to be in order to prevent one hoof from pressing five notes at once. The lower ones hit the register shift levers. Some curling up and stretching can be required to get at all the octaves: it took a long time before double-jointedness stopped being the secondary requirement for expert skill. The style looks incredibly awkward, feels worse during long performances (especially since padded benches didn't arrive for seven centuries, mostly because previous generations of piano teachers refused to let any student be more comfortable than they'd been), and sounds beautiful -- if done properly. And as for doing it properly... well, the best way to become master of a classic piano is to have the appropriate mark. Everypony else just gets to silently curse the parents who felt the skill could be developed anyway.
"She still asks me if I'm up to Reinbits," Twilight wearily concluded.
"So we're taking it?" Rainbow carefully asked.
"I thought I'd just loan it to Cheerilee. You know -- permanently. Somepony at the school must want to learn piano... in theory, anyway."
"...I understand," Fluttershy whispered. "...about parents not recognizing what you want to do... it's okay, Twilight."
"She knows I love magic," Twilight sighed. "She just insists that magic includes piano playing."
Rainbow decided to shift the subject. "So we move it! Or you do, right! What is that, five seconds for a unicorn who levitated an Ursa Minor? We'll just get the doors, you lift it and move it straight down to the cart! Then we'll wrap it there and we're done!"
"I -- can't."
Five simultaneous sets of blinks made a rather unique sound.
"Twilight, dear," Rarity tried, "are you hurt?"
"And -- you cannot lift this?"
Another sigh. "Watch."
Twilight's horn lit. The pinkish field moved forward, surrounded the piano -- and slid off. The aura shifted to the left, compacted, made a tiny sphere around a bit of air before it compressed down into a single twinkle of light and winked out again.
"It's a security spell," she sadly explained. "It's for making things hard to steal by unicorns. It's really hard to do -- I haven't remotely gotten the hang of it yet. And this one's been in place for centuries. This same piano has belonged to my House -- I don't even know why anypony would want to steal it, we can barely move it! I can't even move something else and shove using it: as soon as it makes contact, the spell stops the field either way. Either we push, or we get somepony else to push, or -- it stays where it is. And I don't know how to dispel the effect yet, and if I get it wrong, the whole piano just -- goes. Which is another part of the security spell -- that if the owner can't have it, then nopony can... and sometimes they take out a lot of other things when they go..."
"I wish to be certain I have this right," Rarity carefully proceeded. "There is a piano. It is done in the classic style of Early Depression Recovery: I see the griffon influences in the rollback nature of the lid. It appears to be made of a rather dense material -- if I guessed at Black Ironwood...?" Twilight nodded. "It is more than slightly on the large side. It may, in fact, mass in at several tons. And we are going to move it."
"No. I'm going to move it," Twilight said. "I promised I'd take care of any awkward furniture or anything really heavy, remember? This is both."
And with that, before any of the others could stop her, she walked up to the right edge of the piano, planted her left shoulder against it, and shoved.
The piano stayed exactly where it was. Twilight's hooves, in accordance with some level of physics, slipped two inches backwards.
She closed her eyes and pushed again, harder. Her front legs nearly went out from under her.
And then there was a gentle touch against her right shoulder.
"Sugarcube," Applejack kindly began, "you're determined, Ah know that. An' when it comes to magic an' the strength y'get from it, you're the strongest one of us. But when y'take the magic out... Twi, you're small. You're the smallest pony here: least height, thinnest build. Y'can't move this thing. Ah'm not sure Ah can move this thing, not for more than a few inches at a time an' maybe not all the way down. All you're gonna do if y'try is hurt yourself. Bad. Maybe all of us t'gether can get it down t' the cart, but y'can't by yourself."
"I have to move it," Twilight breathed. "It's my piano..."
"Ah have t' harvest the Acres all by mahself," Applejack responded. "They're mah fields. Remember how well that worked out, Twilight? Remember who cared enough t' try an' stop me? Jus' let us help, that's what we're here for..."
"This is my move!" The volume was increasing, and Twilight put every decibel behind her next shove. Her hooves slipped still more. "I don't want help! I didn't ask! Spike did and I never asked him to! I never wanted any of you here at all today! I don't even want to move out of here! I wanted to keep this place and they won't let me any more! I can't leave it behind! If I do, then --!"
Every ounce of strength Twilight possessed went into the next shove.
Her hooves went out from under her. Her head went into the piano.
And then there was no sound but for that of a young unicorn mare weeping against unyielding wood.
It took less than five seconds for Fluttershy to close the gap and land by Twilight's side. "Let me see." Never hesitant, not when it was possible injury. "Turn your head." The librarian, tears still falling, complied. "It looks like your horn took most of that, but horns are just about unbreakable... what's hurting?"
"Nothing," Twilight whispered. "The horn got it and I wasn't using magic -- no backlash..."
Fluttershy blinked. "What's --"
"-- nothing. Doesn't matter. I have to move this, I have to and I can't, I can't give this place up..."
"Why?" Rainbow Dash, who had landed just behind Fluttershy. "Because it's a great apartment in a great city? Because it's so much better than Ponyville? Because nothing in it is lame, because nopony here is lame --"
And the shout took over all, the pain rippling across the keyboard and playing music none of them had ever wanted to hear.
"Because when I finally screw it up with everypony here, I won't have anywhere to go back to!"
They let the echoes die away, watched to see if they took any of the agony with them. It didn't happen.
And then Pinkie was pressed against her, despite having been so far away to start, she still somehow got there first, then Fluttershy, followed by Rainbow, Applejack and Rarity...
But the tears wouldn’t stop.
"I don't know how to be friends," Twilight whispered into Pinkie's curly mane. "I tell myself I'm learning lessons. I write letters. But I still don't know. I don't know if I'm doing things right most of the time, or if I'm getting things wrong. I try to follow what I've learned, I try to act -- a little more like all of you -- and hope some of it makes a difference. But I don't know and I don't hardly ever understand, not enough. And sooner or later, I'm going to do something stupid or say the wrong thing or both, and -- it'll be gone. It'll all be gone. Like I just woke up after the best dream of my life, only I remembered all of it and could never have it back, I can't even return here any more and pretend. I'm going to screw up and I won't have a home, any home, I'll just remember having one and it'll be worse than anything ever, worse than Nightmare..."
They pressed closer.
"Twilight..." Rainbow, sounding as awkward as she always did when the emotions went deep. "We know you screw up. We've watched it. We all have. We're still here. You'll screw up again. If you ever screw up big time -- I'll tell you. It's not always gonna be in words. Maybe if it hits me personally enough, I might prank you into the ground. Maybe I'll tie you up and hang you off something to put you on notice: You Screwed Up: Ponies Taking Pictures Between Ten And Noon. But I'm not leaving. I'll get you back and -- we'll move on."
"Nopony knows how to be friends when they start," Pinkie told her. "I didn't know how to be friends with anypony when I came to Ponyville. All I'd had was my siblings, and -- that was different. I didn't know how to be friends, Twilight -- so I just was friends. I thought if I liked somepony and I was trying, then anything that came with it was -- being friendly. And I know I messed up. I came on too strong a lot of the time. Sometimes I still do. But I got it right here and there, and more and more with each try, and -- now I have lots of friends. So do you. I started late, you started later -- and we're both here."
"...I can barely talk to most ponies," Fluttershy whispered. "...I have trouble giving them bills, or collecting them, and sometimes just going to the market is a problem, I can barely shop when things get really bad. But... I can talk to you... because I know you need somepony to talk to... because I know it's just as hard for you in a way that's not so different... because we're friends and we're not going to lose that..."
Rarity sighed. "I would rather have awkward sincerity than a thousand attempts at kissing up in the name of fame by association or social climbing or anything else that comes with a mask, Twilight. You are who you are -- and that is part of what we love about you. That you're trying. And that the effort truly is trying and not faking. Yes, there are times when we're frustrated: I believe we will all admit that. Our frustrations will sometimes even get the better of us -- briefly. If it seems we are going, it will be for but a few hoofsteps while we collect ourselves and our thoughts. And we will always come back."
And Applejack. "Y'made me take y'all on as family. What are y'doin', tryin' t' get a divorce? Ain't gonna be that easy, Twi. Ain't ever gonna be that easy. An' it ain't the Elements. No Nightmare Moon, no rescue... yeah, that brought us t'gether. Pressure of a fight: nothin' like it for bondin'. But Ah like t' think we could've connected without it, all of us. We were always s'pposed t' come t'gether. Never heard anythin' saying' we were s'pposed t' move apart. Families fight, an' there's gonna be times when we fight, all of us. We're -- different, way different, so different we've almost gotta clash. So there's gonna be battles an' misunderstandin's an' all sorts of stuff. But at the end of it? You're stuck with us, we're stuck with you. So we make up an' move on. 'cause that's what family does."
Twilight listened. She heard all of it. But she kept crying, and they let her, staying against and around and over her in a ponypile until all the tears had come out. They knew the words had gone in and registered. But they also knew there would be days when she still had doubts, and those days would continue to come for a long way into the future. She would need not only reminding, but patience. Some lessons would need to be learned again and again. They would have to stand by her until the acceptance of others in her life -- the belief in presence -- finally became an equal faith in herself. They knew it would take time.
And they would be frustrated. Perplexed, more than frequently. Angry, sometimes. But ultimately, they would wait for her.
That, too, was friendship.
They were pushing the piano. It was taking all six of them, and it was moving barely a quarter of a hoofstep at a time. In part, that was because it was impossible to align their bodies along it in such a way as to efficiently distribute the force. Having Rainbow fly ahead every other minute to check the path wasn't helping either. But it was mostly just that heavy.
"So," Applejack breathed, not quite winded yet but give her the entire length of the spiral and the topic would come up, "this really belongs t' you?"
"All mine," Twilight said, and coordinated with the others for the next push. "My mother outright gave it to me when she wanted me to start. So I can do whatever I like with it."
"Your horn put a slight scratch in the wood," Rarity noted as she heaved, sweat beginning to drip off her saturated coat. "It's no longer in museum-quality condition."
"True," Twilight gasped. "I wouldn't want to give Cheerilee inferior goods."
"...plus there's colts and fillies who don't want to play piano," Fluttershy pointed out. "...and when their parents know the school has one, they'll make all of them do it anyway. And this one's too old to be comfortable, too big for anypony that age... besides, if they're supposed to have that mark, it'll find a way to come... it always does..."
"And there's a ramp," Pinkie added as they got the thing onto the porch. "A high-friction ramp. We can't slide this down fast. We're going to have a hard time sliding it down at all."
"Not to mention," Rainbow said, flitting back for a moment, "that as long as you have it, your mom's gonna keep asking you to play Reinbits..."
They all thought about the sum total of it for a few seconds. More pushes got involved.
"Rainbow, where is the total lack of railing right now?" Rarity asked. "I have rather too much sweat in my eyes to guess."
"About two body lengths ahead of you."
"So another twenty heaves for the critical part?"
They worked through nineteen of them.
"So this is best, really,' Twilight said. "We came to move me out of here. We're moving me and this. Permanently. And there's no going back."
"It's a commitment," Pinkie agreed.
"Gotta get it done," Rainbow said.
"...you have to do it fast so it hurts less," Fluttershy pointed out.
"Just tear an' go," Applejack agreed.
"Because the best direction is forward," Rarity decided. "One more, girls?"
Rainbow checked. "Go for it!"
As it turned out, a piano crashing into the ground after falling that distance made the most distinctively musical sound any of them had ever heard.
One of the first rules of moving is that the process will automatically expand to occupy whatever amount of time is assigned to it -- and then try to move beyond that by whatever percentage it can get away with. Even with six of them to stop the thing in its tracks, they had barely gotten out by sunset. There had been no time to check out Canterlot's nightlife (or the single doughnut shop which Twilight knew of it), and also no energy. The majority of the group had fallen asleep on the train, and Twilight barely recovered enough strength to get off it. Rarity mentally measured the distance from the station to the library versus that to the Boutique, then brought the smaller unicorn to her own home, escorted her up to bed, and gave the soft sheets over for the night. Rarity could use her own couch.
But not just yet.
She trotted across a sleeping Ponyville, up to the library. Knocked on the door. Spike opened it, glanced up, looked worried.
"She's at my home," Rarity assured him. "The poor thing is wiped out -- in more ways than the physical. I'll bring her back in the morning, Spike."
His smile was weak. "So -- you got her out?"
She let the silence hang over his spines for a moment.
"Yes," Rarity told him. "Again -- in more ways than the physical." And watched his face.
It had taken some time to learn how to read all of Spike's expressions: his facial anatomy was not that of a pony. He could have been a devastating poker player if he'd just had any interest in the game at all, at least for the first time he sat down at any table. It was possible to learn his tells, and Rarity had. This grouping was rather obvious.
"Oh," he said softly, and could not add more.
"You knew." It wasn't an accusation. More of a statement, really. "You knew she was hanging on. Afraid to let go. Stalling, even during the move, just in the hopes of being somehow given more time and keeping her retreat point. That if she'd gone alone -- cataloging books all day and begging for an extension all night, correct?"
Barely audible, "Because it's what she did two moons ago. With me there. And I wasn't enough to snap her out of it. Princess Celestia arranged the extra time, but it felt like the last. I thought -- if there were more of us... even if I couldn't go..."
She kissed his forehead.
"You're a very good brother, Spike."
Rarity trotted away. Spike stood in the backlit doorway, watching.
Not quite to himself, at the absolute edge of her hearing, "I want to be."
Twilight did many things in her life. But she never learned how to play the piano.
Her ivory destruction technique, however, only became more refined.